Winter is quickly approaching, and Massachusetts property owners may have a legal duty to clear more snow and ice this year than in the past.  The Supreme Judicial Court recently abolished the distinction made between “natural” and “unnatural” accumulations of snow and ice as it relates to the liability of Massachusetts property owners.  In light of the Court’s ruling, it is important that every property owner review his or her snow and ice removal procedures in order to avoid liability and to minimize the risk of harm to others.

For nearly a century prior to the 2010 case of Papadapoulos v. Target Corporation, a property owner was only legally responsible for injuries caused by unnatural, or man-made, accumulations of snow and ice on his or her property.  The long-held reasoning for such a distinction was that a property owner was only responsible for injuries caused by defects existing on her property, and that natural snow and ice did not constitute a per se defective condition.  Under this framework, a property owner was not liable for injuries caused by naturally-occurring accumulations of snow and ice.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Papadapoulos altered the traditional “natural v. unnatural” paradigm by holding that an owner has a duty to keep her property reasonably safe for all lawful visitors, regardless of the source of the danger.  Following Papadapoulos, a property owner’s duty with respect to snow and ice is the same as any other potentially dangerous conditions, i.e., to “act as a reasonable person under all of the circumstances including the likelihood of injury to others, the probable seriousness of such injuries, and the burden of reducing or avoiding the risk.”  In other words, what constitutes reasonable snow and ice removal may vary depending on the type of property, amount of foot traffic, the magnitude of the risk, and burden of removal.

In reaching its decision, the Court quoted a similar opinion from the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which stated that,

We believe that today a landlord, armed with an ample supply of salt, sand, scrapers, shovels, and perhaps a snow blower, can acquit himself quite admirably as he takes to the common passageways to do battle with the fallen snow, the sun-melted snow now turned to ice, or the frozen rain.

The Court also pointed out that the obligations imposed by its decision were in some respects less demanding than some regulatory requirements and city ordinances.  As one example, Boston property owners have only a three hour window after a snowfall ends within which to remove the snow from their property.

It is important this snow season to seek legal representation in the event a visitor or tenant suffers a slip-and-fall on your property, or if you are injured as the result of a property owner’s unreasonable failure to remove snow and ice from her property.  Property owners may want to review agreements with snow removal companies for effective indemnity and hold-harmless provisions, as well as review insurance coverage, in light of the change in law.  To learn more about how the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Papadapoulos may affect you, speak with a personal injury attorney at Vaughn-Martel Law and speak with us today!

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